Enemy Among Us: Chapter 40

Burns rode shotgun in McLeary’s rented Charger as they entered the parking garage below a covert DEA facility nestled within a cluster of high-rise offices outside a high-tech industrial park. Neither spoke on the elevator ride to the seventh floor task force office.

Burns flashed her badge at the guard on duty inside the office suite. “He’s with me,” she told the officer in uniform, pointing to McLeary beside her.

“You’re late,” Kriegel barked from the conference room window overlooking the Miami traffic below. He closed the vertical blinds and dimmed the lights. “Shut the door.” He motioned to Doctor Beckman who plugged her laptop computer into the video projection monitor on the table. “This is Doctor Candice Beckman, a senior pathologist with the CDC.”

McLeary shook her hand. “Doctor.”

Burns followed behind McLeary. “I’m Special Agent Burns. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Candice answered. She pointed to Agent Bryant seated across the room in jeans and a Miami Dolphins jersey. “I assume you all know Special Agent Bryant and his team with the DEA task force?”

“We’ve met,” said McLeary. He stared at Agent Bryant with contempt, recalling the face of a former accuser.

Kriegel snagged the wireless remote from the table and clicked the PowerPoint presentation to flash the image of a bearded man with a bloody face, half buried in the crumbled ruins of a deserted military bunker destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. “Special Forces snapped this picture from a drone three years ago in Afghanistan after an airstrike on an al-Qaida stronghold failed to neutralize the primary target.”

“Who is he?” asked McLeary.

“His name is Ahmed Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical fundamentalist and previous deputy chief scientist from Saddam Hussein’s former death squad. Abdullah’s believed to be responsible for conducting hundreds of lethal experiments involving aerosolized biological pathogens on civilians. Mostly women and children.” Kriegel paused to reflect. “As the photo shows, he was left for dead in the airstrike rubble until our friends at Langley uncovered new intelligence to suggest otherwise.”

Kriegel clicked the next slide to illuminate the picture of an airline baggage handler.

“Meet Marcus Noland, a former CIA asset killed in Amsterdam where he was working as a ground crew member for Transatlantic Airlines. Noland was feeding the Agency information on Abdullah’s whereabouts and his alleged plans for a wide-spread attack on U.S. soil.”

Kriegel clicked to the next slide, which showed a dead woman on her knees in a public restroom with her head in a toilet. “This photo was taken one week ago. Intelligence suggests Ahmed Abdullah assumed the identity of Marcus Noland to gain access to the airport facility where he got close to this woman, Carla Bonnnove, Marcus Noland’s girlfriend and ground crew shift supervisor in charge of baggage screening. He used her to gain access to a baggage sorting area. We believe Abdullah was attempting to smuggle something out of Europe and into the United States.”

“Smuggle what?” asked Agent Bryant.

“I’ll get there in a moment.”

Kriegel advanced the presentation, showing a bathtub full of partially liquefied human remains. “You’re looking at what’s left of Marcus Noland who took his last shower in an acid bath. This picture was taken by Rosie Uppal, a senior field agent sent to investigate Noland’s disappearance when he fell off Langley’s radar. A local asset found Rosie dead in her car.”

McLeary got up from his seat. “Why didn’t the Agency roll up Abdullah when they had the chance?”

“Because you know as well as I do Langley’s not interested in making arrests.”

Agent Bryant spoke up. “And what about Ali Muheen? How does he fit in?”

Kriegel advanced to the next slide, flashing the family portrait of Fayez Sayeed with his wife and three children. “We’ll get there.” He coughed to clear his throat. “This is a picture of Fayez Sayeed taken two years ago. A naturalized American citizen, loving husband, father, and well-respected GS-14 working for the IRS until he went AWOL from his job a week ago and fell off the grid.”

Burns shook her head. “What does he have to do with anything?”

“Before Marcus Noland was murdered in Amsterdam, he supplied the CIA with intel about an Iranian mole living in Washington D.C. Marcus never uncovered the mole’s identity, only that he had strong ties to Ali Muheen and Ahmed Abdullah. Marcus believed the mole was working with Muheen and Abdullah in conjunction with other members of a Lebanon-based radical Shi’a group who call themselves—”

“Hezbollah,” said McLeary. He rubbed his chin. “The same group who attacked the U.S. Marine barracks with a suicide truck in Beirut in ’83.”

Kriegel nodded.

Burns scribbled in her notepad. “What about Fayez Sayeed? Does he have any ties in the U.S.?”

“Homeland Security has his American wife under federal surveillance. So far she’s not suspected of any terrorist involvement. Fayez Sayeed came to this country to obtain a permanent residence and now he’s abandoned his American wife and children.”

“What do we know about his plans?” asked McLeary.

“Not much. We deployed a code yellow terrorist alert. State and local authorities have an all points bulletin on Sayeed. Hopefully they’ll get lucky and pick him up.”

“And what about Ali Muheen?” Agent Bryant asked again. “How does he fit into all this?”

Kriegel coughed. “We’re still piecing everything together. But we do know Muheen is a brother-in-law of Ahmed Abdullah, whose wife and son were killed in the airstrike photo I showed you earlier. We believe Muheen operated several terrorist training camps in Chechnya and the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia. We also believe Muheen and his cohorts smuggled several experimental pathogens from a biodefense laboratory in Kazakhstan. Intelligence tracked him outside of Amsterdam, and most recently, Miami. We speculate he’s working in conjunction with Fayez Sayeed. As Agent Bryant can attest, the DEA’s had Muheen under surveillance for several weeks.”

Agent Bryant nodded. “For involvement with narcotics distribution. Now for all we know Muheen could be cooking up explosives instead of crack.”

McLeary looked at Burns, then at Agent Bryant, and finally at Kriegel. “Muheen is dead.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Agent Bryant.

“The man you’re watching is not Ali Muheen.”

Kriegel tossed the wireless control on the table, his posture telegraphing his disgust. “Have you been drinking on the job? Because the words coming out of your mouth don’t make sense.”

McLeary stood beside the conference table. “None of this makes sense,” he continued. “I received a tip two days ago from an anonymous source who believes Muheen is dead. This source also helped another colleague in Quantico decrypt a message from Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry we found in China Town, where a witness spotted Gentry getting into a sedan with Muheen.”

“What message?”

“Something about a magical kingdom.”

“And when were you planning to share this with the team?”

“I just did.”

It was obvious Kriegel struggled to keep a level head in front of Doctor Beckam. “What’s the connection?”

McLeary shrugged. “My money says Abdullah used Gentry to rob a bank. Gentry never knew the big picture. Neither did Rodney Nito and whoever else Abdullah’s team recruited to do their dirty work and sidetrack us from their real end game.”

“Which is what?” Agent Bryant chimed in. “My men have had Muheen under twenty-four seven watch for weeks. What makes you think your anonymous source is credible?”

“My gut,” said McLeary.

“Oh… well… why didn’t you say so in the first place? I’d trust your gut over credible intelligence sources any day.”

McLeary kept a tight face, deflecting Agent Bryant’s condescending tone with unwavering confidence in his own assessment of the anonymous caller’s credibility. “This wasn’t a crank call. This person had knowledge of Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry and the crypto skills to help an expert analyst uncover the coded message it was hiding.”

“So did anyone who worked closely with Gordon Gentry,” Kriegel interjected. “In fact, how do we know this mystery source of yours doesn’t pose a counter-intelligence threat? For all you know, he could be working with someone in Abdullah’s organization, dropping erroneous clues to disrupt our investigation. In fact, how can we trust that anything you’re telling us is true?”

“The same way we trust Agent Bryant never had inappropriate relations with barn animals.”

“That photo was doctored!” Bryant retorted amid a chorus of muffled giggles from his colleagues in the back of the room.

Kriegel gnashed his teeth. “God dammit McLeary! I warned you about pulling this sort of shit during my investigation.”

“You mean our investigation,” said Burns.

“Gentlemen, ladies,” Doctor Beckman piped up, undoubtedly attempting to diffuse the lethal concentration of testosterone in the room. “Please… We’re spinning our wheels and going nowhere fast.” She commandeered the remote from Kriegel and advanced to her portion of the presentation. “Time is our enemy.” She waited for the grumbling to subside before she started. “I don’t give a shit about your personal problems or your political agendas. The fact is we’re likely dealing with an anthrax outbreak the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” She clicked to a slide showing a list of names appended to five different hospital images linked to a bank photo. “Doctor Michael Lewis uncovered the threat before it finally killed him. His autopsy confirmed hematoxylinophilic bacilli had completely filled his perivascular lymphatic space. Immunohistochemistry revealed B anthracis in affected tissues with an antimicrobial-resistant strain modified to increase virulence.”

McLeary read the charts on screen. “Translation?”

“Doctor Lewis, and staff at other hospitals, confirmed almost a hundred cases citing exposure to weaponized anthrax as cause of death.” She paused once she finally had the group’s full attention. “A portion of my team began the process of trying to identify the source of the infection, starting with background checks of all known or suspected anthrax victims at nearby hospitals in the Washington Metropolitan region. We cross-referenced the list of names and discovered all were members of one or more of the financial institutions that were recently targeted. We confirmed our findings. Most of our anthrax victims were present during the time of the robberies.”

“Which leads us to speculate,” Kriegel added, “about the strong possibility that our robbery victims were exposed to airborne contaminants.”

“Are we at risk?” asked McLeary.

“The probability is low.”

“How low?” asked Burns.

“I can’t give an exact figure.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we don’t have all the answers,” said Doctor Beckam. “Anthrax doesn’t spread like the common cold. It doesn’t pass from person to person.”

“Unless it’s been genetically modified to do so,” McLeary added.

Doctor Beckman looked at Kriegel then back at McLeary. “Let’s not jump to unfounded conclusions.”

“But it’s possible…”

“In theory, perhaps. Though it’s highly unlikely without knowing the specific gene sequence or—”

“We’re still missing something,” McLeary argued. “Are you suggesting the bank robberies we’re investigating are ground zero for these anthrax attacks?”

“It’s one scenario.”

“Why would someone launch a bioweapon attack during an armed robbery?”

Burns rummaged through her notes. “Rodney Nito said someone paid him to rob the credit union. Maybe he and Gordon Gentry were recruited to do more than steal money?”

“They don’t fit a bioterrorist’s profile,” said McLeary.

“Maybe not,” said Kriegel. “But it fits with Ahmed Abdullah’s MO.”

Doctor Beckman clicked to the next slide. “Handling virulent biological agents in an envelope is one thing, but creating a weaponized version of anthrax spores lies beyond the reach of most terrorist organizations. It requires highly specialized skills and access to sophisticated equipment.”

McLeary shook his head. He stared at Doctor Beckman through pinched eyes. “Any crackpot with a degree in biochemistry and a quantity of anthrax material could pull this off.”

“We’re not talking about mixing fertilizers with diesel fuel, Agent McLeary. There are more than seventy different strains of anthrax. A potential enemy would have to isolate different strains before finding one sufficiently potent to work in a specific, weaponized format.”

“Like the Ames and Vollum strains?”

“Or worse… An aerosol release of fifty kilograms of dried anthrax containing several trillion spores over a city of five million would produce more than a hundred thousand deaths and nearly a quarter million incapacitating illnesses. The spores are odorless and nearly colorless in the atmosphere. They can also sustain their potency for decades.”

Burns tapped her pen on her notepad. “What about a vaccine?”

“Antibiotics are the first defense for victims already exposed. The CDC stocks Ciprofloxacin, although its effectiveness varies depending on the length of time from exposure and whether the spores were inhaled or passed subcutaneously through the skin. The Pentagon stores the military’s Biothrax vaccine. Right now that’s our best pre-exposure protection against known anthrax strains.”

“What about unknown anthrax strains?”

“Biothrax, or any vaccine we manufacture, is not a cure-all. No two people can be guaranteed the same level of protection. With the right anthrax variant and the right antigens, our best vaccine could be rendered ineffective. I’ve been in touch with Fort Detrick—”

“What are you saying?” asked Burns. “How effective do you think this vaccine will be? If at all?”

Doctor Beckman stretched across the table and turned off the slide projector. The darkened room fell funeral-silent with the cooling fan humming inside the projector housing. “A better question would be: how do we prevent the next attack from happening?”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 1

Lakewood, Florida

Red neon bled through the rumpled curtains in the squalid motel room where Sheriff Alan Blanchart tucked his shirttail into his polyester pants and zipped his fly. He peeled a hundred dollar bill from a silver money clip and gave it to the naked starlet perched on the bed in front of him. “You got a name?” he asked the alluring mocha-skinned girl who looked barely old enough to buy beer. He buttoned his collar and adjusted his tie on the crisp uniform shirt he wore beneath his bullet-proof vest.

The girl stuffed the cash in her purse. “Who do you want me to be?” She held a cigarette between slender fingernails painted with glitter polish and pulled the sheet above her chest. She scratched at the custom wig she wore over curly brown hair to cover a patch of disfigured scalp caught in the gears of a faulty circus ride.

Blanchart tied his patent leather shoes and admired his reflection in the high sheen finish.

The girl giggled. Dark mascara underscored her smoldering brown eyes. “You must get hot under all that gear.”

“Better to sweat than bleed.”

“Can I wear your badge?”

Blanchart scratched his finger on the thick mustache that hid a jagged scar on his lip, a childhood souvenir from repeated contact with his pappy’s fist. “You haven’t earned it.”

The girl blew smoke. “So what does it take to earn a shiny badge like that?”

Blanchart fastened his Boston Leather duty belt. He stared at the girl through malignant eyes and said, “More than you know.”

He tapped his wedding band on the wooden baton suspended from his belt. Marred with divots and scratches, the length of straight-grain hickory proved more useful at subduing perpetrators than the pepper spray or the twenty-thousand volt Taser he carried. In the hands of a trained operator, the head-cracking baton delivered a blunt force message loud enough for the deaf to hear.

The girl flicked ash on the carpet. She wanted to leave the bed and get dressed, but the vibe coming from her scabby John compelled her to stay.

Blanchart kneeled on the edge of the bed. His two-hundred-and-fifty-pound frame sunk into the worn mattress springs. He touched the girl’s face and felt her tremble under his callused hand. In some ways, she resembled his wife—the woman he swore an oath to love and cherish for as long as he walked the earth. In other ways, she personified everything he loathed about women who traded sex for money.

His pager chirped.

He read the message on the monochrome display and gathered his sheriff’s hat from the dresser. “I have to go.”

Outside the motel, he settled behind the wheel of his black Police Interceptor with tinted windows, dual exhaust, and a whip antenna on the trunk. Static crackled from the radio in the mobile command center, where a rugged laptop disclosed the criminal history on anyone with a valid name, license, or registered plate number. Dash-mounted radar kept tabs on speeders. Behind his seat, a Remington 870 shotgun kept the peace.

He drove fast, running parallel to the railroad tracks that bisected the small town of Lakewood, Florida. Population seventy thousand. A place where families raised their children in the relatively quiet confines of Sheriff Blanchart’s jurisdiction.

He delegated mundane tasks to subordinate officers, affording him the opportunity to manage his extracurricular activities. When time allowed, he fielded domestic disputes and the occasional burglary that often resulted from a drug addict trying to score. Despite the conservative, well educated, and mostly crime-free demographic, bad elements prevailed in the housing tracts meant to shelter the working poor.

He knifed his way through a construction zone outside a mobile home park where plastic pink flamingos decorated the entrance. He gunned the engine at a stop sign and detoured through a golf course neighborhood segregated by winding cul-de-sacs and man-made retention ponds. Guided by the map in his head, he followed the quickest route to the stretch of manufactured housing situated beyond an elementary school playground.

He slowed behind an empty patrol car parked more than a block from a ramshackle residence obscured by heaping fronds and overgrown bramble.

He keyed the mike on his lapel. “This is Blanchart. What’s your twenty?”

“I’m at the back of the residence,” a deputy replied over the radio. “The house with the blue tarp on the roof.”

Blanchart exited his car and slid the hickory baton through the brass ring holder on his belt. He unsnapped the leather holster strap and withdrew his service pistol. “Hold your position,” he said softly into his radio mike. “I’m approaching from the east side on foot.” He kept the muzzle down, advancing beyond a row of metal trash cans near the carport entrance.

He leaned against the stucco finish and peered inside an open window at the kitchen littered with jugs of antifreeze and open bottles of drain cleaner. Hundreds of empty pill packets filled a box in the corner. Ether-soaked coffee filters floated in a baking pan at one end of the warped kitchen counter. At the other end, a snarled web of colored extension cords fed a dozen hot plates from an overloaded power strip.

Blanchart craned his neck and saw a man in a gas mask emerge from the other room with a sawed-off shotgun resting on his shoulder. Behind him, jugs of hydrochloric acid sat precariously on a wobbly card table straddling cans of benzene and camp stove fuel. “I’ve got an armed perp with a shotgun,” he whispered into the mike. “Do you see him?”

“Negative, Sheriff,” the deputy replied, his voice barely audible from the lowest volume setting. “The house looks empty.”

“Secure the back of the residence,” Blanchart ordered. “Wait for my signal.” He maintained a two-hand grip on his service weapon and side-stepped around back with uncanny agility for a man his size.

He followed his deputy through the screened porch and they advanced inside the house single file. Accosted by the fog of phenyl-acetone and ethylene chloride vapors, he covered his mouth with his sleeve and assumed a position behind a load-bearing wall stacked with boxes of bubble wrap and plastic tubing. In twenty-two years of law enforcement, he’d confronted his share of paranoid junkies who had morphed into superhuman animals from prolonged exposure to their own product.

“Cop!” a muted voice shouted through a charcoal-filtered mask.

Blanchart ducked just before a twelve-gauge blast tore a crater-size hole above his head and pelted him with pulverized plaster.

He hugged the floor. Boxes toppled over him as he scuttled behind a sofa.

“Sheriff’s Department!” Blanchart hollered at the Kamikaze moron throwing shots in a house of flammable vapors.

The shooter racked the shotgun. A spent shell casing hit the floor and bounced sideways, trailing smoke.

“Can you see the shooter?” Blanchart called out to his deputy, choking on the bittersweet taste of heated ethylene glycol.

“In the kitchen,” the deputy replied.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m good,” the deputy acknowledged.

Blanchart knew that despite objections from friends and family, his deputy had abandoned his teaching position to pursue a law enforcement career, arguing that a small town meant small crimes. In barely three years out of the academy, his deputy had nabbed his share of speeders and made his first DUI arrest a week before his twenty-fourth birthday. But the Sheriff knew that nothing his deputy had seen or done before could compare to the shit storm swirling around him right now

A screen-door slammed.

Blanchart peered around the sofa to see a second perp bolting from the front of the house. “Give it up,” he called out to the shooter in the kitchen. “Drop your weapon and come out where I can see you, slowly, with your hands behind your head.”

“Fuck you!” the gunman shouted, his voice muffled by the gas mask on his face.

“No one has to die today,” Blanchart reassured him. “We can walk out together—or I can haul you out in a body bag. The choice is yours.”

“I don’t trust cops.”

“You’re not alone,” Blanchart shouted back. “Wrong place, wrong time. It happens. Come out and we can talk about it. No one wants to see this go bad.” He pumped his fist at the deputy across the room and mouthed the word window. He drew a box shape in the air with his finger.

The deputy retreated through the screened porch at the back of the house and made his way toward the kitchen in the front.

“I’m not going down for this,” the gunman shouted.

“No one’s looking to jam you up,” Blanchart said to keep the conversation moving—and to buy more time. “I can’t help you unless you give up the gun.”

The masked shooter paced back and forth with the shotgun stock butted tight against his shoulder. He knew Sheriff Blanchart by reputation but never dreamed he’d confront the man face to face. “Let me walk and you can keep the product,” he bargained. “All of it.”

“You’re wasting my time.”

“I’ll give you names,” the shooter pleaded.

“Don’t want them.”

“I’ll give you locations.”

“Don’t need them.”

Blanchart saw the shooter blink behind the gas mask’s triangular eye pieces. He kicked a box of pill packets against the wall. The Sheriff had him cornered with one way in and no way out. “I’m not going back to the joint!”

“That’s not my call. Give up the weapon and come out with your hands where I can see them.”

The shooter unloaded two more shells in the sheriff’s direction, exploding a plume of sofa stuffing.

Blanchart hugged the carpet. His right leg burned from a superficial wound. “You’re not hearing me.”

“I’m not going back to prison.”

“I’m not sending you.”

The shooter loaded his last shotgun shell.

“Freeze!” the sheriff’s deputy shouted from outside the kitchen window.

The shooter tucked the muzzle under his chin and pulled the trigger. His head exploded like a watermelon, spackling the walls and ceiling with vaporized blood, bone fragments, and sticky grey matter.

The deputy reentered the house and gagged on the carnage smorgasbord. He braced a hand on his knee and vomited. “Why would he do that?”

Blanchart advanced. He holstered his service pistol and stepped around the body. “Did you get a good look at the second perp?”

The deputy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Caucasian. Late twenties. Thin build. Black hair. He had a tattoo on his neck.”

“You sure?”

“I’d recognize him if I saw him again.”

“You did good,” Blanchart assured him.

The deputy stared at the bloody corpse. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“People do crazy things.”

The deputy reached for his radio mike. “I’ll call it in.”

“I already did,” said Blanchart. He snapped on a pair of latex gloves. “How did you find this place?”

“Dispatch put out the call. I was first on the scene.”

Blanchart grabbed the bloody shotgun from the floor and loaded a new shell from his pocket. “You see anyone else besides this fool and the one that got away?”

“No,” the deputy answered. He moved slowly around the stockpile of explosive chemicals. “There’s enough shit in here to keep a dozen cooks busy full time. If I hadn’t found this place—”

Blanchart raised the shotgun to the deputy’s face and pulled the trigger. “…you’d still be alive.”


Enemy Among Us: Chapter 38

An hour before dawn, a black panel van cruised a small townhouse neighborhood in Germantown, Maryland, circling at the end of the street before returning to a four-way stop. The van sat idle for several seconds, then continued along the shoulder before slowing behind a mailbox across from the brick-front homes. The driver signaled his two passengers and shifted the transmission into park.

When the van’s sliding door opened, two large men in dark suits got out and marched across the street to the bay window residence with painted shutters, their shoes crunching on the slush of salt and ice on the sidewalk leading up to the welcome mat.

They rang the doorbell and stood shoulder to shoulder armed with Sig Sauer handguns and the training to use them.

A woman with tired eyes and a slouched body posture answered the door in a faded flannel gown and slippers. “Can I help you?”

The taller man with a chiseled jaw and short, spiked hair raised his hand to show his badge. “Are you Martha Anne Sayeed?”

“Yes. Who are you?”

“My name is Special Agent Parks. My partner Special Agent Rollins and I are with the Department of Homeland Security. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Did you find my husband?”

“May we come inside?”

“Where’s my husband?”


Martha Anne allowed the men with guns and badges to enter and ushered them to the family room. She shut the basement door and parted a strand of hair from her face. “Who sent you here?”

Agent Parks ducked his head beneath a low-hanging chandelier and observed the family photos on the fireplace mantel: a wedding portrait of a husband and wife exchanging vows on a beach, and a photo of three kids wrestling with a golden retriever in front of a painted fence. “You are the wife of Fayez Sayeed?”

“Yes. Do you know where my husband is or not?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Ma’am,” Agent Rollins acknowledged. He checked the area behind the breakfast nook overlooking the neatly arranged family room with coasters on the coffee table and a sofa positioned in front of an open entertainment center. “Is there anyone in the house besides yourself?”

“My children and my mother upstairs. Why?”

Agent Rollins checked the space behind the laundry room door. “Standard procedure. We have to ask.”

Agent Parks scanned the room with lugubrious eyes, noting anything suspicious or out of place. A wireless microphone in his collar transmitted his voice to the agent in the van. “When was the last time you saw your husband?”

“Seven days ago. He left for work like he did every morning. I called him before lunch to remind him to pick up the dry cleaning. He said he would. That was the last time I heard his voice.”

“So you haven’t had any contact with him since then?”

Martha Anne shook her head and wiped the edge of her nose with a tissue.

“How long have you known your husband?”

“Almost twelve years.”

“Where did you first meet him?”

“On vacation in France.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Ten years.” She watched Agent Rollins disappear into the other room. “What does this have to do with anything? I don’t understand why you’re here.”

“Prior to your husband’s disappearance was he acting strange or out of character? Did he do or say anything out of the ordinary?”

“I don’t know what you’re implying, and I don’t appreciate your tone. My husband is an American citizen.”

“A naturalized citizen,” Parks corrected her.

“My husband works for the federal government, and yet, no one gives a damn that he’s missing.”

“Did your husband have any foreign friends or relatives visit him recently? Anyone he might be in touch with today?”

“I don’t know where my husband is today! I’ve never met his relatives. His friends are my friends. We don’t keep any secrets from each other.”

“I understand your frustration, Ma’am. We’re simply trying to ascertain his whereabouts.”

“You’re acting like he’s a wanted felon. Slaves were treated with more compassion than this. I don’t want you in my house. Get out!”

Agent Parks put his hands out to help deflect the verbal assault. “I understand how you feel.”

“No, you don’t. You have no fucking clue how I feel. Now get out of my house or I’ll call the police!”


“You have no right to be here. No right to come into my home, with my children, and harass my family like this. For all I know my husband is already dead.” She cupped her hand on her mouth when she noticed her daughter staring into the living room from behind the upstairs banister.

Martha Anne shook her head and took her hand away. “Go back to your room,” she told her daughter. “I’ll be up in a minute.”

“I need to ask you some more questions,” Agent Parks insisted.

Agent Rollins returned to the family room and started for the stairs.

“Don’t go up there!” Martha Anne shouted. She took the cordless phone from the kitchen counter and dialed 911. She put the phone to her ear and heard, “We’re sorry, this call cannot be completed at this time…” She pulled the phone away and shot a scathing glance at Agent Parks. “You did this, didn’t you? You tapped our phones.”

“This is a national security issue.”

“National security? This isn’t Nazi Germany. I’m an American citizen. You’ve got no right to do this!”

Agent Parks maintained his calm. The deadpan expression on his clean-shaven face never changed when he spoke. “I understand your frustration.”

“I’ll sue you and your department. My lawyer will eat you alive before this is over.”

“Were you aware your husband’s sister has ties to a family in Iran?”

“Yes. She still lives there.”

“And were you aware her family has ties to a terrorist organization with cells suspected to be operating in the eastern portion of the United States?”

Martha Anne folded her arms at her chest. She watched Agent Rollins return from upstairs and give a nod to his partner. She’d prayed for days on end, hoping for an explanation to her husband’s disappearance. She’d lied to her children to protect them from the reality that she had no idea where their father was or whether he would ever return. She’d called the police. She’d called her friends, her relatives, and former coworkers, anyone she could think of who might know something, anything, even if it meant her husband left her for another woman. She’d even contemplated the possibility of an auto accident, an amnesia scenario, an angry man upset by something so distressful he couldn’t bear to see his wife again—even the possibility of suicide. But nothing like the agent’s suggestion had ever crossed her mind, not even for a second. She loved the man she married. She knew him as a faithful husband and a caring father who loved his children. A man with distant ties to relatives who never blessed his marriage to an American woman.

“Mrs. Sayeed?”

“He lied to me,” she said. “We’ve been married for ten years. How could he do this? How could he live like this?” She felt Agent Parks touch her arm as she mentally collapsed from the sudden reality that the man she loved had betrayed her and the country that welcomed him with open arms. “He lied to me…”

Agent Parks held his arm out to catch her fall. “He lied to all of us.”


Enemy Among Us: Chapter 22

Slumped on a padded bar stool in an upscale restaurant with valet parking and entrée prices steeper than a Broadway show, McLeary held a picture of his sons with their mother standing between them, her arms around both boys. Worn and faded, the small photo had endured several years crammed in the back of his bi-fold wallet, including a full wash cycle at the laundromat. “I’ll take another,” he told the bartender who filled a tall glass from the Michelob Ultra tap.

“Are you waiting for a table?”

McLeary rubbed his thumb along the photo’s tattered edge. “Not tonight.”

“That’s what my girlfriend always tells me,” the bartender quipped, his coy expression dissolving the moment his eyes met the glare from the FBI agent, who could break him in half without spilling his drink.

McLeary retrieved an airline itinerary from his jacket pocket beside his empty holster. His flight from BWI to Miami departed in four hours, giving ample time to reflect on the recent checkmark in his failure column. The more he thought about the bureau, the more he regretted his involvement in the robbery investigation. He’d struck out worse than a one-arm batter. The glory days were over, and his feeble attempt to rekindle the past reminded him of why things ended the way they had. However righteous the cause appeared, it meant nothing in the scheme of life. Banks were meant to be robbed, if not by thugs with guns, then by sleazy Wall Street suits who made more money than God with less integrity than a torpedoed hull. The bad guys would commit the crimes, and the police would chase them in a never-ending cycle of cause and effect, good versus evil, kill or be killed, and all that crap. Throwing bodies at a broken system kept the wheels of justice spinning, adding low-level criminals to over-crowded prisons while the real masterminds remained at large to perpetuate the cycle of wide-spread corruption and greed.

He drank from his chilled glass, enjoying the first beer he’d had in days.

He stuffed the picture in his wallet between a video rental coupon and a credit card.

“I thought you’d left for Miami,” said Burns, approaching from the lobby entrance.

McLeary sipped his beer and licked the foam off his upper lip. “You might want to wipe your nose. I still see Kriegel’s ass on the tip.”

Burns held a string tie envelope in her hand. “Are you always this crass?”

McLeary slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar loud enough to get the server’s attention. “Keep the change.”

Burns glanced at the female patrons in fur coats and expensive jewelry worth more than her car and wardrobe combined. “We need to talk.”

“Not anymore.”

“Just hear me out. If you don’t like what I have to say, I’ll keep walking and let you finish your beer.”

“I’ll pass.”

“Just like that? Without sparing me one minute of your precious time.”

“You’re a fast learner.”

“How do you live with yourself, McLeary? Despite how you see things, the world doesn’t revolve around you.”

McLeary finished his beer. “Are we done?”

“That depends,” Burns blurted loud enough for every patron in the bar to hear, “on whether or not you’re still living on stolen money.”

“Good night, Agent Burns.”

“I didn’t come here to lock horns, McLeary. I need your help.”

“Sorry Sweat Pea. That ship has sailed.”

“Kriegel reassigned me to the case. I thought you should know—”

“Kriegel’s an idiot.”

* * *

Burns kept silent for several seconds, allowing the angry voice in her head to subside; the same inner voice she heard every time Jim McLeary opened his mouth. She didn’t need him to do her job. She didn’t want him to do her job. But as much as she hated to admit it, McLeary was on target about Kriegel. “For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right. Kriegel is an idiot. It doesn’t change my motivation to catch these guys before they hit another bank and more innocent people get hurt.”

McLeary left the bar and worked his way through a large dinner party converging on the dining room. “I have a flight to catch,” he said without looking back.

“That’s it?”

McLeary pushed his way outside. “That’s it.”

Burns followed him to the parking lot and shoved an IAFIS report in his face. “We got a hit off the print you found at the Chase Bank robbery.”

“You don’t give up, do you?” McLeary grumbled. He snatched the paper and read the comparison results. “What do you want from me, Agent Burns?”

“I want your help.” Burns scanned the parking lot before she lowered her voice and said, “The print belongs to a terrorist named Ali Muheen. IAFIS pulled him from the Homeland Security watchlist. He’s number seven—”

“I know where he is on the list.” McLeary gave the paper back.

“Then tell me why he’s involved in robbing banks.”

“Maybe his credit card’s over the limit.”

“I’m serious, McLeary. Work with me on this—at least until we crack the case.”

McLeary pressed his hand on the Mustang’s roof. Out of time and out of options, he flattered Agent Burns with a question. “What exactly is your plan?”

“Start from scratch. Go back to Gordon Gentry’s restaurant in China Town. Maybe someone who knew him there can give us new direction.”

“Gentry was a career criminal with a long rap sheet. He wasn’t the brains behind the first robbery.”

“He knew enough to end up dead.”

“You’re assuming his death was intentional.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time one partner screwed over the other for a bigger share.”

“Or a chance to make a name for herself.”

“Are you really that shallow, McLeary?”

“Do Boy Scouts shit in the woods?”

Burns waited by the driver’s door. Her doubts about McLeary resurfaced like the tuna she had for lunch. “Kriegel has your gun in his office. Internal Affairs approved the shooting.”

“You’re lucky I was on the bridge with you.”

Burns held her hand out. “You’re lucky you’re not in jail. Give me the keys. I’m driving.”

“Not a chance, Sweet Pea.”

“Technically you’re still under contract with the bureau and therefore still on the job. If Kriegel finds out you’ve been drinking on duty…”

McLeary dropped the keys in her hand and went around to the passenger side.

Burns climbed in and brought the engine to life. She nudged the accelerator, producing a throaty growl from the Mustang’s dual exhaust.

“There’s a valet switch under the dash.” McLeary pointed at the steering column. “Flip it down to cut the power back.”

“No thanks.”

“You think you can handle it?”

Burns slid the transmission in drive and mashed the accelerator to the floor. The supercharged big block responded instantly, lighting up the rear tires to leave parallel patches of smoking rubber behind. “You think you can handle me?”

* * *

McLeary entered the Chinese restaurant with Agent Burns through the back. He saw a waiter in rubber-sole shoes mop a path from the kitchen to the dining room entrance. Sauce pots simmered on a gas-fired grill beneath an assortment of utensils suspended from a wire rack.

When a manager in a black bow tie and white shirt with gold cuff links approached, Burns displayed her badge and said, “We’re with the FBI.”

“How did you get in here?”

“We need to ask your employees a few questions.”

“About what?” the manager replied in a heavy Cantonese accent. He spoke through chapped lips and crooked yellow teeth. “We are very busy.”

McLeary showed a picture of Gordon Gentry lying face-up on a slab in the morgue. “Do you recognize this man?”

“Perhaps this is not the time or place?”

Burns maintained a sideways glance at the chef dicing vegetables with a chopping knife the size of a small machete. “We can do this now or come back with a warrant to search the premises. Then we can escort your entire staff downtown for questioning.”

“That won’t be necessary.” The manager brought them to a tiny office in a hallway with red wallpaper and textured ceiling tiles. “The man you ask of worked for me. Washed dishes. Part time. Mostly weekends.”

“What can you tell us about him?” said McLeary.

“Always keep to himself. No trouble. Did his job and went home.”

Burns examined the office space. There was a Chinese calendar on the wall and a printing calculator on a desk littered with restaurant receipts. “Did you pay him cash?”

The manager looked at Burns, then back at McLeary. “I paid him cash every Friday. He work cheap. No trouble.”

“Yeah, we got that part,” McLeary added. “What can you tell us about his friends? Where he lived? Who he spoke to?”

“He spoke to no one.”

McLeary noticed a box of junk in the corner. “When did you hire him?”

“Six months ago.”

“You let Caucasians work here?”

“No one wants dish job anymore.” The manager stepped into the hallway and barked orders in his native tongue, prodding cooks and waiters to move faster.

“Do you mind if we have a look around?” asked Burns.

“Quickly, please.”

Burns closed her notepad and turned to McLeary while the manager disappeared in the kitchen fray. “Do you think he’s hiding something?”

“Maybe. Did anything turn up in Gentry’s apartment?”

Burns shook her head. “Kriegel sent forensics to toss his place. So far the lab’s turned up nothing to connect him to the Chase Bank robbery or Ali Muheen. Whatever Gordon Gentry had up his sleeve, he kept it to himself.”

McLeary headed toward the dish-washing station, where a nozzle hung from a spring-loaded water line above the giant stainless steel basin. A Salvadoran dish washer with a pencil mustache and a baseball cap scrubbed a kettle with a Brillo pad. McLeary tapped him on the shoulder and flashed Gentry’s picture.

The dish washer shrugged and kept working.

McLeary persisted. “Have you seen this guy before?” He grabbed the spray nozzle and held it away. “You speak English?”

Burns intervened, stepping between McLeary and the frightened worker. “My partner is an ape,” she said in Spanish. “Please ignore him.”

“I don’t want any trouble,” the dishwasher replied.

“I understand. But this man robbed a bank and killed two police officers.

“No INS?”

“No INS. We just want to know about this man in the picture.”

The dish washer relented. “He never spoke to me. I saw him maybe three, four times.”

Burns held a photo of a young, bearded, Ali Muheen in a white turban. “Have you ever seen this man before?”

The dish washer nodded. “Yes.”


“A week ago. I carried trash outside and heard them arguing in the parking lot.”

“What about?”

“I don’t remember. He drove away in a black Mercedes.”

“Did you see the license plate?”


Burns gave the dish washer twenty bucks. Then she wandered through the restaurant to find McLeary chatting up a pretty hostess in a red dress in heels. “We’re good.”

McLeary smiled at the hostess and nodded. He followed Burns outside. “You get anything from our dish boy?”

“Muheen was here.”


“About a week ago. I’ll call Kriegel and get a team to sit on this place.”

McLeary examined a broken Blackberry phone with a busted screen.

“Where’d you find that?”

“Buried in the lost and found with a shirt and an empty wallet with no ID. Might be something. Might be nothing. I’ll dump the records.”

“You find anything else while you were flirting with the staff?”

McLeary shrugged. “Just a green card and some bad egg foo young.”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 3

Jamie Blanchart hauled groceries from the cherry red Volvo S-40 in her two car garage. Her hourglass figure strained beneath the sleeveless yellow sundress she wore over a lace bra and panties. Designer shades hid oval eyes inherited from her Polynesian mother. Straight auburn hair framed her heart-shaped face and brushed the top of her C-cup breasts.

She carried the milk and OJ first. Then she went back for the bags of canned goods, frozen chicken, and the six-pack of her husband’s favorite beer.

She slid her clogs onto a shelf in the laundry room inside their three-bedroom home and carried the cold groceries to the counter by the fridge. She checked the microwave timer. The smell of baked tenderloin filled the quiet house.

She crammed the frozen food in the freezer and organized the cold groceries in the fridge. The milk went on the bottom shelf. Cheese and meat went in the middle drawer. Beverages belonged in the door panel below the condiments. Butter came from sticks, not tubs of yellow spread. Milk was two percent. Cheddar cheese was sharp. Lettuce had to be crispy, not limp. And anything else Alan Blanchart wanted, Alan got.

With the groceries finished, she grabbed a dust rag and a bottle of Pledge. She tackled the China hutch first, a gift from Alan for their five-year anniversary. She worked the rag in a clockwise motion along the mahogany grain, her image reflected in the glass doors that displayed the antique china.

She used a feather duster on the silver candle holders and the faux bouquet of flowers on the dining room table. She ran the stick vacuum on the hardwood floor outside Alan’s study, where the door to her man’s domain remained locked at all times.

She avoided the empty nursery and the flood of mixed emotions that always followed when she entered the room alone. Life was good to her, if not always fair. She had what she needed, more so than what she wanted. And although at times she missed her career, she held fond memories of her friends and the life she knew before marriage.

A product of foster care, she had worked hard to find her place in the world. Now, at almost forty, she finally had a permanent home, a husband, and food on the table. She had found the American dream. Or so she convinced herself.

She stowed her cleaning supplies in the butler pantry organized more methodically than a surgical suite. She aligned the canned goods an inch apart and six inches from the front of the shelf, the way Alan liked it. Cereal, oatmeal, and breakfast bars faced out from the middle rack above the paper products. Toiletries and other sundry items were segregated in colored bins on the bottom racks.

When she heard the garage door open, she pressed her hands along her dress to flatten wrinkles. She washed up in the powder room sink and primped her hair.

“You’re home.” She greeted Alan with a peck on the cheek. She could smell the cheap perfume on his collar.

Blanchart hung his hat in the closet the same way he did every time he came home, except on the special nights when he brought home flowers or a box of Jamie’s favorite candy.

Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.

“Did you make the appointment?” Sheriff Blanchart asked bluntly. He unfastened his duty belt and hung it on the closet hook beside his hat.

Jamie touched the butterfly tattoo etched between the dermal layers of skin on her upper back. A spring break memento from a college road trip to Daytona Beach, the tattoo served as a constant reminder about the consequences of her actions, and how at times, even the best intentions had negative consequences. “I called the doctor’s office this morning,” she said. “I have an appointment for next week.”

Blanchart stooped to kiss her. Nearly ten inches taller than his life partner, he cupped Jamie’s chin in his hand the way a forensic pathologist might examine a human skull.

Jamie looked down. “I have to check on dinner.” She reached for an oven mitt in the sliding drawer by the stove. There were no indecisions with Alan. His mood was hot or cold; content or irate; happy or sad. Sometimes he came home himself, and sometimes he came home a stranger in his own skin. On the good days, he kept to himself. On the bad days, he made her the center of attention.

Jamie opened the oven to check the meat thermometer. A blast of hot air greeted her face. “How was work?”

Blanchart ran his hand along the countertop to check for dust. “Not great.”

“I cooked beef tonight,” said Jamie. “Your favorite.”

Blanchart shook his head. “Not tonight.”

Jamie closed the oven. “I can save it for tomorrow.”

Blanchart took a beer from the fridge. “This isn’t cold enough.”

Jamie stiffened. “I just got home from the store.”

“Which one?”

“The same one I always go to. I saved the receipt.”

Blanchart twisted off the cap and moved to the sliding glass doors that faced the screened porch outside. “The pool looks dirty.”

“The guy didn’t come today. I called this afternoon and left a message.”

Blanchart nudged a crooked wedding picture on the wall near the kitchen. He drank his beer in solitude, his thoughts distracted by recent events. “Did the mail come?” he asked rhetorically.

“I put it in the basket.”

“Did anyone call?”

“Not that I know of.”

Blanchart downed his beer. “I lost a deputy today.”

“Oh my God…” Jamie pulled the roast from the oven and set it on the stove to cool. “What happened?”

“Simon Carter died in the line of duty.”

Jamie recognized the name. “His wife just had a baby.”

Blanchart picked at the beer bottle label with his thumbnail and hovered close to his wife. He touched her shoulder with his other hand. “I need to schedule his service. We should send his family flowers.”

Jamie reached up to touch his hand. “Are you okay?”

Blanchart pulled away. He rinsed the empty bottle in the sink and squeezed it in a vise-like grip. “If I want your sympathy, I’ll ask you for it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? You didn’t kill him.”

Jamie transferred the roast to a storage container with a lid and left Alan to his own machinations. She shared a tenuous connection with her husband of twelve years and knew what buttons to avoid.

Blanchart squeezed the bottle harder, his jaw muscles twitching from the effort.

The brown glass imploded with a pop. Broken pieces clinked in the double sink.

Blanchart stared at the thorn of splintered glass stabbing his palm. Blood drizzled toward his sleeve.

Jamie retrieved the first aid kit from the pantry and tore open a pack of four-by-four gauze. “That cut looks deep.”

Blanchart rolled his sleeve back, plucked splintered shards without flinching and rinsed the blood to expose the sliced skin. He dried his hand on a dishtowel and pressed the gauze on the deepest cut. Blood pooled in the cotton fiber.

“You might need stitches,” said Jamie.

Blanchart wrapped the dishtowel around his hand. “Clean up this mess and don’t let the glass go down the drain.” He left the room momentarily and returned with the flashlight from his duty belt.

Jamie could see the vein throbbing at her husband’s temple, knew blood pounded in his head—as it always did when he considered she’d stepped out of bounds. He could tolerate only so much before his patience snapped and his role as her husband and care provider reverted to that of teacher. During the course of their marriage, he’d taught her many lessons to educate her in a manner consistent with his beliefs

Jamie used a wet napkin to wipe the glass fragments from the stainless steel basin.

Blanchart raised the flashlight. “You missed some.”


Blanchart shone the light in the garbage disposal. “Down there.”

Jamie peered inside the disposal opening. Light reflected off the broken glass. “How do I get them out?”

“One piece at a time.”

“I can’t reach in there,” Jamie said with an apologetic tone. Her face was ashen.

“I’ll hold the light.”

Jamie stared at the garbage disposal. Her pulse raced. She brushed her fingers on the rubber trap above the circular metal teeth inside the grinding chamber. “My hand won’t fit.”

“Yes it will.”

“What if it gets stuck?”

“It won’t.”

“What if the motor comes on by accident?”

Blanchart thrust the light in her face and touched his wounded hand to the garbage disposal switch. “Do you trust me?”

Jamie felt the knot tighten in her throat as if an invisible noose slowly choked the life out of her. She nodded almost imperceptibly and whispered, “Yes.”

Blanchart leaned closer and touched her face. “Good. Because a marriage without trust ends in mayhem.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 24

Chapter 24

Steve paced inside the office of Assistant Deputy Chief Roland Bonitez, waiting for the distinguished official to return from the restroom at the end of the hall. In his mind, he’d been patient while he sat with his thumbs up his ass watching numerous visitors come and go as if their personal issues took precedence over his. He scoffed at a framed picture of President Obama, his former Commander in Chief; a man he once pled allegiance to in the name of God and country. A man he lauded as a politician yet despised as a military leader. He felt the same toward the government he served. In line with the President, he admired the American Government for what it represented in the name of freedom and democracy, yet frowned at the bureaucratic quicksand often forming the foundation upon which it stood. He’d given more than two decades of his life in support of his country, a country he would gladly serve again in time of need. Now he looked to his country to do the same for him.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Deputy Bonitez apologized as he entered his office to find Steve standing with his arms crossed. A man in his early sixties, the Deputy wore a silk suit and suspenders with a bright purple tie. His cordovan loafers clicked on the polished floor. He wore his thick, black hair straight back. He had thick hair for a man of his age, so much so that Steve wondered if the man was wearing a toupé. If he was, it looked authentic.

“I spoke with the American Consular Agent in Cozumel who put me in touch with Deputy Chief Feeney,” Steve started, “but now I’m told he’s out of the country.”

“Please sit down,” Deputy Bonitez offered Steve. “Perhaps there is something I can do for you?”

“My wife and daughter are missing and I need your help to find them.”

“When you say ‘missing,’ what exactly are you implying?”

“I’m saying they’re gone. Vanished. Something happened to them.”

“When was the last time you saw them?”

“Two days ago.”

Bonitez took a breath mint from the stash in his pocket and placed it on his tongue. “And where were they?”

“Cozumel. My family and I are—were—on vacation there.”

“Which resort?”

“The Presidente Suites.”

“Very nice. My wife and I stayed there last year. We chartered a fishing boat and spent several days—”

“With all due respect,” Steve blurted, “I don’t give a crap about your vacation. I need your help to find my family.”

“And you are certain they have not tried to contact you?”

“I wouldn’t be here if they had.”

Bonitez sucked the cinnamon flavor from the stale breath mint. “Have you contacted the Mexican authorities in Cozumel?”

“I spoke with them again this morning.”

“Have they filed a missing persons report?”

“As far as I know.”

“Then I’m sure they’ll find your family soon. Do you have any relatives in Mexico? Any friends your wife and daughter might be staying with?”

“No, none whatsoever.”

“Any relatives, or friends your wife might have kept from you?”

“What are you implying?”

Bonitez raised his hand. “Senor Chambers, please…” He leaned back in his swivel chair, pushing his hands on the armrests. “I am only trying to explore the possibilities since I know nothing about you or your family.”

Steve clenched his fist in the air. “I’ve agonized over every scenario I can think of, and no matter how much I want to believe my wife and daughter are on a marathon shopping spree or stuck on a ferry boat heading in the wrong direction, I can’t. Something’s wrong. I’m not asking you for an analysis of what may or may not have happened. I’m asking you to light a fire under someone’s ass and help me find them.”

“I understand your frustration. Unfortunately, I simply do not have the resources to go searching for every missing person in Mexico. For all I know, your family could have flown to another destination.”

“Without telling me about it first? Do you know how ludicrous that sounds?” Steve took the passports from his pocket. He opened Leslie’s first, then Sarah’s, revealing the pictures inside the front cover. “Look at these. This is my wife and my daughter we’re talking about, not some punk teenagers lost on spring break.”

Bonitez glanced at the photos. He read the names from the bottom of the pictures and asked, “Your daughter’s name is not your own?”

“Sarah is my stepdaughter.”

“Have you considered the possibility your wife returned to her former husband?”


“It happens.”

“Not to me. Not with Leslie. She hates her ex-husband.”

Bonitez sighed inwardly, wondering how he could dismiss the uppity gringo. Matters of diplomacy and of support for tourism were of far less importance to him than his Friday afternoon sexual relations with his youthful, energetic receptionist. “Senor Chambers I have a daughter a few years older than yours. If I were in your shoes right now I would be concerned as well. In a perfect system I would send every man in my department to look for them, but as I am sure you are well aware, our system is far from perfect. I am merely a servant. I have to work within the guidelines.”

“Fuck the guidelines! My family are American citizens.”

“Senor Chambers…”

Steve cursed the man under his breath. “You’re telling me you can’t do anything?”

“I am telling you I do not have the resources at this time. Violent crime runs rampant in Mexico City and spreads faster than the Mexican Government can control. My people are understaffed and overwhelmed. We receive more than a hundred reports a day about missing valuables or stolen passports. I have twenty-five reports alone on taxicab assaults. Some of these reports state the Mexican authorities are directly involved in the crimes.”

Steve heard the words coming from the bureaucrat’s mouth. Diarrhea of the brain, he called it. An ailment affecting those who have nothing better to do than fill the air with verbal dung. Viewing the world from the Assistant Deputy’s perspective offered no value. If anything, it detracted from his mission. “Can you at least explore the possibility they might have been arrested? For all I know they could be sitting in a Mexican jail somewhere.”

“It is possible. I will notify the Arrests and Detentions Office on your behalf and have them contact you if necessary.”

Steve composed himself and grabbed the reins on his heated temper. The more he spoke to Bonitez, the more he came face to face with the reality of his situation. There was little or nothing the American Embassy would do for him.

“Have you received any ransom messages or threatening phone calls?”

“Not yet.”

“A note of any kind?”

Steve felt his heart skip a beat. The room spun in circles. He’d thought of everything but the possibility of them being held for ransom—the possibility that someone kidnapped his family for personal profit. But why? We don’t have money.

“Senor Chambers?”

“I should get back to Cozumel.”

“To do what, Senor?”

“Whatever it takes.”

Without a Trace…. Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Fifty Miles South of Key West

Damon Alexander sat behind an L-shaped table in the cabin of a forty-foot Viking trawler. A five-day growth of beard covered his face and the front of his neck down to the thick, black chest hair sprouting from the top of his grease-stained shirt. He smelled of liquor, raw fish, and body odor so strong it masked the odor from the stopped-up head. In his right hand, he held five cards in his callused fingers: a queen of hearts, a jack of clubs, a pair of fives, and a deuce. Across from him sat a scrappy young Latino.

Damon poured himself another shot of Jose Cuervo and squinted at the sunlight seeping between the cracks along the cockpit door behind his crewmate.

“Draw or pass?” the young Latino asked. The gaze from his beady eyes shifted from his cards to Damon and back.

Damon coughed. Not a dry, harsh cough, but a wet, raspy cough, producing phlegm. The pneumonia was back again, a result of spending days at sea exposed to wind and rain, and lack of sleep. “I’ll draw.” He swapped three cards from his hand for three new ones from the deck. He sipped his shot of tequila, contemplating his strategy based on the cards he selected.

A third crewmember, older and wiser than both Damon and the young Latino, entered the salon from the pilothouse. Clad in overalls and rubber boots, he took the bottle of tequila and screwed the cap on, leaving his own cards face down on the table. The most experienced of the men aboard, he’d logged more years at sea than Jacques Cousteau—and displayed the haggard features to prove it.

“Your hand,” said the young Latino.

The old man ignored him. “The storm is coming. We should raise the nets.”

“One minute,” Damon offered. He pinched the edge of his thick mustache as he thought about his strategy. He knew the old man was right, but there was good money riding on the outcome of the game. “It’s still your hand.”

The old man slammed the bottle on the table, bouncing the ashtray and spilling tequila from Damon’s shot glass. “I fold.”

“You can’t do that,” the young Latino shouted. “This game just started.”

“This game is over.”

Damon got up from his seat. Arguing with the old man was pointless. “He’s right. We should raise the nets.”

“This is bullshit,” the young Latino mumbled.

Damon watched the old man escort the hot-headed sailor back on deck. Twenty years ago he would have sided with the young Latino. Now Damon followed orders like a good soldier, keeping his opinions to himself. He ran his hand over the circular balding pattern on the back of his head. He’d lost twenty pounds since the summer, putting him closer to two hundred and thirty. He scratched his chest through the front of his sweat-stained shirt. A purple birthmark on his neck left a blemish the size of a silver dollar. A gunshot wound to the knee forced him to walk with a limp. A souvenir from a brawl with authorities in Puerto Rico, the bullet had severed his tibial artery and nearly cost him his lower leg.

He could feel the boat list to starboard when he climbed the steps to the pilothouse. Above him, cumulonimbus clouds hovered vertically like towers of dirty cotton, reinforcing the old man’s weather prediction.

Damon put his hands on the wheel and checked the compass. To his right, a gooseneck lamp extended over a chart plotter. He studied the coordinates and noticed movement along the aft deck below, where a crane and pulley station swayed under load. He unhooked the microphone from its cradle on the VHF and switched to channel twenty-two. “The time is now,” he said over the airwaves. A short response from the other party told him what he needed to know.

* * * *

The old man stood his ground near the back of the main cabin entrance where an orange life ring hung from a hook-shaped stanchion. He checked the split winches and the rusted net roller before activating the crane and pulley system while the boat operated under autopilot, drawing a purse seine net. A lever mounted inside a metal box controlled the electric winch. Once engaged, the system would wind the cable around an iron bar until it pulled on the twisted steel cord extending the length of the twelve-foot crane. “Them look like keepers,” the old man told his crew as they shuffled about the deck.

When the net came aboard full of blackfin tuna, the old man opened the hatch to the livewell storage bin. Confined in the dark, wet compartment, hundreds of pounds of fresh fish flopped beside one another. He watched Damon and the young Latino unload the last catch until he noticed the yacht approaching from the north beneath fast-moving clouds. The gentle breeze had elevated to a gusty wind, rocking the forty-foot trawler about its axis. What was once an easy task of standing in the same place without moving, now proved more treacherous than before.

Thunder followed a flash of lightning and instilled a sense of urgency for the three-man crew. Brewing for more than an hour, the storm had waited patiently as the gulf stream currents carried it up from the south. What had started as a modest accumulation of clouds had proceeded on its own terms, prepared to vent its wrath without regard to life or property.

The old man disengaged the autopilot to head for shore. A trio of windshield wipers swiped at sheets of rain while thunderous drops pinged the pilothouse roof.

He observed the GPS display, ignoring the blip on the radar screen. “Where’s the boy?” he asked Damon.

Damon looked out the starboard window and leaned against the bulkhead for support as the boat began to pitch and roll. He bumped his elbow on a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall beside him. With the horizon obscured by the raging downpour, he could barely see the yacht approaching through the sloppy weather. “He went below.”

“You did well today,” the old man confided.

Damon coughed. “I do what I can.”

Thunder tapered off, replaced by the churn of the trawler’s engines lugging beneath the lower deck. The edge of the tropical storm had passed, heading quickly for its new destination.

Damon watched the old man grip the wooden wheel with his bony hands. He admired the man for who he was. He admired the way he worked tirelessly without complaint; for the way he rose at sunrise every morning and put in sixteen hours of hard labor on a boat that reeked of sweat and dead fish. In a way, the old man reminded him of his father, who kept a sore attitude about women and whiskey. But unlike his father, Damon saw how the old man loved the sea, a natural longing to separate himself from the land-locked natives who didn’t know the difference between a shoal and a shawl.

With the rain subsiding, Damon acknowledged the flashing light coming from the bow of the approaching yacht. He read the Morse code message, then turned to find the old man standing diligently behind the wheel of his beloved trawler, mumbling to himself while he interpreted the incoming message.

“You shouldn’t read that,” said Damon.

The old man looked across the bow. “Who are you?”

Damon unfastened the metal band holding the fire extinguisher in place. Filled with CO2, the B-II unit weighed almost as much as a scuba tank and could effectively eradicate small fires, electrical disturbances, or an old man whose time had come.

“The sun is coming back,” the old man observed. He adjusted the wipers while the last few droplets of rain smacked the pilothouse windshield. The water trickled down the glass, following random paths like steel balls in a plinko machine.

Damon clutched the metal canister in both hands and swung it like a bat, drawing power from his hips as he cracked the edge of the heavy cylinder against the old man’s head. The blow knocked the man off his feet and left a moon-shaped fissure behind his ear. He slumped on the floor below the helm, his body twitching from a reflex spasm. Blood pooled from the back of his head.

Damon dropped the extinguisher and throttled back the engines. He made his way down the narrow companionway toward the galley where the young Latino rummaged through the icebox for a drink.

“Why are we stopping?” asked the young Latino.

Damon clubbed the young man’s face with bare hands until he beat the boy unconscious.

He shook the stinging sensation from his knuckles and grabbed two bottles of liquor from the galley. He emptied the tequila bottle first before dumping the contents of the Bacardi 151 around the boy’s body. Then he yanked the propane burners from their sockets. Gas hissed from the broken fixtures.

He made his exit through the aft companionway, stopping only to retrieve a metal briefcase and a flare gun from his berthing compartment. Back on deck, he climbed down to the runabout idling alongside the trawler. “What took so long?” he asked his partner.

Victor steered away from the trawler and headed for the yacht. “Bad weather.”

Damon loaded the first of three shells in the single-chamber flare gun. When the smaller boat reached a safe distance, he fired the burning projectile in a shallow arc toward the trawler’s open cockpit. When the burning missile fell short of its target, he yelled, “Hold up!”

The runabout slowed.

Damon loaded the second shell and took aim, launching the flare at a steeper trajectory. This time the fireball hit its mark and tumbled across the trawler, igniting the trail of poured alcohol.

Flames spread through the cabin space, where the young Latino awoke to find himself on fire, his arms flailing in a desperate attempt to halt the skin-melting blaze. Screaming uncontrollably, he stumbled over his own feet and fell on the floor in a heap of burning flesh. Then the propane exploded in a violent blast, hurling scraps of wood and fiberglass in all directions. Human debris fell from the sky like confetti while hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel formed a sticky, black cloud over the turquoise water.

Damon helped his partner secure the runabout on board the yacht’s aft garage and raised the hydraulic latch. He marveled at the size of the multi-million dollar vessel, capable of forty knots. “Where did you find this?”


Damon wiped the salt water spray from his face. “The Coast Guard’ll search for the boat.”

“Not this time,” Victor answered confidently.

Damon followed his partner to the yacht’s helm station. “What’s our heading?”